Dealing with the Invisible: Interview with Ambrose Akinmusire / by Liquid Music


by JP Merz

Jazz trumpet virtuoso Ambrose Akinmusire is known for his "unfurling lines that confound expectation" (Chicago Tribune) and the "strong aesthetic compass" (The New York Times) that guides his compositions. On Wednesday, February 15, Akinmusire premieres his latest project, Origami Harvest, at Amsterdam Bar & Hall in Saint Paul, commissioned by the SPCO's Liquid Music and Kaufman Music Center's Ecstatic Music Festival. Origami Harvest features rapper Kool A.D. and the Mivos Quartet alongside pianist Sam Harris and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

Music has always been more of a religious experience for me, you know, dealing with the invisible.

Tell us a bit about your musical background

I was born and raised in Oakland, California. My dad is from Nigeria and my mom’s from a small town in Mississippi. My dad came to Oakland in his mid-20s and my mom when she was a teenager. Both of them come from religious families. It’s hard for me to give a musical background without giving the background of my parents and their religion. Music has always been more of a religious experience for me, you know, dealing with the invisible.  I started on piano in church and then started playing trumpet in church. When I think about the images from my upbringing I have these soundtracks from that time. The music that was being played in the cars or at church or on the radio. These things kind of play in my head when I think back to these images from my childhood. So that’s what got me into music, just things that I was seeing and hearing.

What were some of those soundtracks?

A lot of gospel. Just black music. A lot of hip hop. A lot of funk. Every Sunday my mom would play the Aretha Franklin amazing grace concerts. After we went to church, that record would be on all day. Or James Cleveland, Bobby Bland. My mom listened more to blues and gospel and my dad listened to Nigerian music like King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti. Growing up, I was listening to all of that and hip hop. So when I went to a jazz camp in 8th grade I was just like ‘oh ok this is just like the stuff I’ve been hearing just played on instruments’. It wasn’t like “now I’m playing jazz.” Jazz has never been this separate thing from black music for me because I was saturated with it as a kid. When you think of blues or black gospel music or hip hop these things are obviously black and come from the black experience. I didn’t really have the “normal” kind of American introduction into jazz.

Turning towards this project, Origami Harvest, what sounds are being evoked and what does the title mean for you?

With this project I was kind of thinking… I hate the word mashup... but that’s what this is. I was thinking what if I were able to play a bunch of stuff from iPod all at the same time...what would that sound like? It would be this! We have some electronics, some jazz, some classical, some hip-hop and all kind of melting into each other, forming new shapes that are also impermanent. And that’s why I like the word harvest. Harvesting is circular there’s the off season and the on season, you keep going and going and there’s no arrival. And then I have this image of kind of slowing folding papers and collecting them... Music is really like a crop... now I’m just getting very vague but that’s how I think about it.  But I do think this is a beautiful time in music. A lot of people like to talk about genres or “crossing over” but I think if you look at what New Amsterdam is doing or Kendrick Lamar or lots of people in jazz... it’s like everybody’s erased genres. They’ve erased these boundaries of where you can and cannot go and what can be considered jazz or hip hop or classical. I think this is a great time for this type of project.

You’re not just trying to play all of the ‘right’ notes, you’re considering the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ notes.

How do you navigate working with musicians from different musical backgrounds in an improvisational setting?

I think now in 2017 it’s hard to find musicians that don’t improvise. Not everyone needs to know how to play a jazz standard like Cherokee in all twelve keys to improvise. Not to get too cliche or deep but we as humans are evolving and evolution is improvising. You can’t really evolve without going into the unknown. I think that in order to make music now, the music of this time, improvisation is something you have to understand. 

On your last album, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint you also worked with a string quartet, what feels different or new about this time with the Mivos Quartet?

On my last album, there were certain things I was trying to address. I went through this long period of trying to address the lack of sustain in jazz. Most “jazz” instruments can’t sustain a note for very long. Drums, Piano, Bass, Guitar, even trumpet can’t sustain for very long. So I thought, what about having strings to sustain the note for a very long time. Or having Theo Bleckmann layering his voice on a loop pedal. I wanted to create an album that almost never had a silent moment. So that’s what I was dealing with on that album sonically. With Origami Harvest it’s very different, especially with a string quartet like the Mivos Quartet. When I think of Mivos, I don’t think of them as a group there to sustain. I think of them as a rhythmic machine, a living organism.

How has working with Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) shaped this project?

Victor is from Oakland as well so we’ve known each other for a very long time and have a lot of mutual friends. We’ve always kind of been one step away from working with each other… I think now at this point in my life and my career I try to surround myself with musicians and people who are willing to present all sides of themselves because then you can deal with honesty and actually have a real conversation. In 2017 with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the media, it’s very tempting to only present the good sides of yourself. But I like people who are just as comfortable with the ugly sides of themselves as they are with the beautiful sides of themselves both in their craft and socially. And I think Victor embraces that in his lyrics and his life. I think once you get to that level in an improvisation setting, the possibilities are limitless. You’re not just trying to play all of the “right” notes, you’re considering the “right” notes and the “wrong” notes.

Has anything in this project surprised you along the way? Or not gone as you anticipated?

No because I don’t anticipate things. The way I’m dealing with music as I get older is that I’m just here as a scribe, just writing things down. I’m not trying to shape to be any one particular thing. So there is no surprise but it is all discovery. It’s just what is coming out, there’s no judgement there’s no preconceived ideas. There’s a bit of editing with instrumentation and sonics. I’m not usually surprised by how things turn out. But on the other hand I’m always very surprised because I didn’t know anything about the music beforehand.

Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know before the show?

Not really. For this project, I feel like I’m in the audience as well because of the way I’m dealing with the music. Sure, my name will be at the top of the composition but the music doesn’t belong me, music doesn’t belong to anyone. Music will be here, it was here before all of us were born and when we die it will still be here. We are just here to serve the music. So I have just as much insight as the audience and I’ll be experiencing as they experience it.

The world premiere of Ambrose Akinmusire's Origami Harvest is Wednesday, February 15, 7:30pm at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall. Co-commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music and Kaufman Music Center's Ecstatic Music Festival.

Information and tickets can be found at:

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